Scotland's remotest island community to press for funds for new ferry

For the small, but vibrant population that calls Britain’s most remote inhabited island home, it has long been a lifeline link, albeit one which is proving increasingly unfit for purpose.

Now authorities in Shetland are set to pursue the UK Government for a multi-million pound windfall to replace the ageing ferry that services one of Scotland’s furthest flung communities.

The funding would also bankroll the construction of a “transformative” new linkspan, cutting journey times and improving the resilience of an often treacherous route where the Atlantic meets the North Sea.

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The current ferry, Good Shepherd IV, was introduced 35 years ago and it is only expected to remain in service until 2026.

Few, if any, of the 700 or so passengers who use it annually would attest to its comfort, while its freight capacity is limited and frequently at capacity – a major problem given the ferry is used to transport food, livestock, diesel and building materials.

With the weather further hampering its operation, it is all but impossible to maintain a regular timetable. In 2018, some 41 per cent of sailings were cancelled on the day they were scheduled.

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While such challenges can only ever be reduced, rather than eliminated, the islanders have been pushing for years for a replacement vessel, mindful that connectivity is key to the future sustainability of a remote community with an ageing population.

Islanders on Fair Isle have long been calling for a new ferry to replace the ageing vessel which services the remote community.Islanders on Fair Isle have long been calling for a new ferry to replace the ageing vessel which services the remote community.
Islanders on Fair Isle have long been calling for a new ferry to replace the ageing vessel which services the remote community.

The outline business plan, it is hoped, will provide the answer.

It proposes a bespoke roll-on, roll-off ferry between Fair Isle and Grutness on the Shetland mainland capable of carrying 12 passengers and an increased cargo.

Such a vessel, it states, could set sail in shorter weather windows, allow for an increase in crossings and bolster the island’s fragile economy.

Councillor George Smith said: “This is a hugely significant report, not just for the people of Fair Isle, but all of us in Shetland who recognise the need for connectivity of our islands, and the importance that has in maintaining and growing their populations.”

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Michael Craigie, head of transport at the council, said the vision would bring about a “step change” for Fair Isle, ensuring it becomes “much more in tune with the modern world”.

Members of Shetland Island Council’s policy and resources committee will meet tomorrow, where they are expected to ratify the funding application before it goes before the full council.

The money would come from the £4.8 billion ‘levelling up’ fund announced during the recent spending review.

The initiative is designed to improve infrastructure in communities across the UK, particularly in those places where the investment would be deemed to “make the biggest difference to everyday life”.

It is estimated the cost of the new vessel will be £4.8m, with the harbour works accounting for a further £20m.

Fair Isle’s first proper sea crossing was established in 1921. The inaugural Good Shepherd – a converted lifeboat – took up to six hours to reach Grutness, but it was destroyed during a gale in 1937.

Before then, the island’s contact with mainland Shetland, let alone the rest of the world, was sporadic, save for visiting fishing crews and an annual visit by a minister.

In 1864, Chambers Journal noted that “a letter to India or Australia might arrive as soon as one from Fair Isle to London”.

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